Tag Archives: Palaeography

A starters’ guide to old scripts in Belgium

Cover "Oud schrift voor beginners. een inleiding tot de paleografie"

Sometimes an odd chance brings you suddenly to a subject or book. In April I spotted a new primer for Belgian palaeography tucked away among books on linguistics in a large book store. I was happy to find Oud schrift voor beginners. Een inleiding tot de paleografie [Old script for starters. An introduction to palaeography], edited by Georges Declercq and Hanne Roose (Ghent 2023), but I could not help pointing out its misplacement at the sales desk. In this post I will look at the promises and qualities of this new book.

Setting limits

Both Georges Declercq and Hanne Roose teach medieval history at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. In their book they aim explicitly at anyone starting to decipher old scripts in archival records, be they students, local amateur historians or genealogists. The authors firmly believe people can learn by patient exercise and training to read scripts from earlier ages, something which tends to be neglected nowadays when artifical intelligence helps computers to decipher old scripts with evermore sophisticated algorithms. However, Declercq and Roose do not include scripts from the entire medieval period. They choose to start with texts in medieval Flemish from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Substantial space is devoted to texts from the sixteenth century because of the great changes in writing, and the most recent document shown is taken from the mid-eighteenth century.

A proof of the concern to guide the first steps in dealing with old scripts is shown by the relative weight and length of the introductory chapters, sixty of the 224 pages. When the two authors mention further literature in these chapters they wisely refer to just one or a few selected titles, and they do likewise in the section for further reading. Giving a commented select overview is indeed wiser at first than presenting a seemingly complete list of titles without further indications or guidance.

The great strength of this book is the detailed treatment of just seventeen examples of old scripts, five of them in French. For each item a general introduction to the source genre and its context is given, followed by an image of the source and a transcription. To these element they add paragraphs on specific characteristics, abbreviations used, diacritic signs, letter forms and a textual exegesis. Thus they show palaeography as a full-grown auxiliary science for history which takes you beyond merely producing a transcription and quickly going to the information given by a source which might be all you wanted initially. It shows neophytes graphically you have to study your sources before you can reach your prized information.

Declercq and Roose do mention the most recent manuals dealing with Belgian – and Dutch – palaeography, starting with Paul Kempeneers, Oud schrift: lezen, begrijpen, overzetten (Antwerpen-Apeldoorn 2006). They clearly state they did not want to offer a palaeographical atlas as created by C. Dekker, R. Baetens and S. Maarschalkerweerd-Dechamps, Album palaeographicum XVII Neerlandicarum (Turnhout-Utrecht 1992) or the Schriftspiegel by J.P. Sigmond and P. Horsman in its recent third edition (Hilversum 2022), reviewed here last year. The magnificent Album palaeographicum deals with sources in Dutch, Flemish, Latin and French; the introduction and explanations are in Dutch and French. The detailed attention provided by Declercq and Roose for each script example is indeed proof they want to offer an introductory manual. They explain also the value of a number of older printed manuals. The dimensions of Oud schrift voor beginners, 17 by 24 cm, are more modest than those of the Schriftspiegel and the Album. Declercq and Roose mostly show only a part of a document or they had to resize an image substantially.

A few remarks

With all these qualities it is hard to fault Declercq and Roose on any point, but surely some remarks are possible or even necessary. The authors rightly strees the need to deal with older forms of Flemish, Dutch and French. They point to the website Middelnederlands Digitaal created by Veerle Uyttersprot (Universiteit Gent), but they disregarded the fact you can only view the exercises as a student at Ghent after registration. You could have a look at the website MOOC Middelnederlands or at the digitized version of the manual by Maaike Hogehout-Mulder, Cursus Middelnederlands (Groningen 1983).

Declercq and Roose distinguish between a diplomatic and a historical transcription. For the latter they give some basic transcription rules. They point also to the official guidelines for Belgian historians. However, curiously one particular element is missing in their explanations and comments to the examples. They do not point out the need for a proper reference to the very source of transcription as an integral and essential part of any transcription. Perhaps they did not see the need to do this in this manual, because they choose source examples from a private collection. Perhaps they deem it an element of historical heuristics, but in my view you cannot teach early enough the need to and the way how to refer to archival sources. References to sources and objects in libraries and museums seem much more normal for people than archival references with elements pointing to a context or a collection, which can be a source of confusion. I still remember from my student’ years a reference to a charter in a Flemish collection, Charters blauw [Charters Blue]! To use a Flemish word, Amai, this omission is certainly painful. It helps to perpetuate the myth of sources “hidden” in archives instead of making clear the need to explain such references to a student or scholar, to someone creating a family tree or a volunter for local history.

However, this manual scores high notes for its attention to sources for legal history. Even their real or supposed difficult nature did not stop Declercq and Roose from explaining basic facts about them, and rightly so. They present for example a feudal dénombrement from 1436 (no. 4), the document of a woman with directions about her goods upon entering a monastery as a nun in 1501 (no. 6), a verdict of the schepenen (échevins, aldermen) of Ghent from1650 (no. 12), an attestation by the bishop of Doornik (Tournai) in 1665 (no. 13), and a mandate issued in 1756 by the Raad van Vlaanderen, the Flemish supreme court (no. 17). In this example the schepenen of Ghent figure again, but they are not identical officials. The existence of two kinds of schepenen in Ghent, van de keure and van gedele, could have been highlighted.

The Flemish television network VRT created in 2022 a series called Het verhaal van Vlaanderen [The story of Flanders], narrated by Tom Waes, well known for his travel documentaries, not just of places in Belgium, and showing re-enacted scenes from Flemish history; this series is currently shown on Dutch television, too. The diversity of Flemish locations in the documents in the manual by Declercq and Roose wets your appetite to know more about Flemish history. Their choice helps to create at the start of your own adventures with the rich history of Flanders a sense of wonder about and respect for the variety of sources that have survived and can be found in both public and other archives. Many resources for ecclesiastical history in Flanders are kept at diocesan archives. Declercq and Roose deserve thanks for inviting anyone to go that road by learning yourself – perhaps slowly but also diligently! – ways to deal with old scripts. Online tools may decipher scripts in many languages with remarkable results, but for the creation of complete and sensible transcriptions still other skills are needed beyond the scope of these tools.

Georges Declercq and Hanne Roose, Oud schrift voor beginners. Een inleiding tot de paleografie (Ghent: Academia Press, 2023; ISBN 978 94 014 91297; 224 pp.)

Keys to understanding the ancient Egyptian empire

Screenprint startscreen "Hieroglyphs: Unlocking ancient Egypt", British Museum

A few months ago already I spotted the beautiful catalogue Hieroglyphs. Unlocking ancient Egypt for the exhibition with this name at the British Museum (13 October 2022-19 February 2023). My initial interest was the palaeographical side of hieroglyphs. In 1822 Jean-François Champollion famously announced his decipherment of this script. One of the great merits of the exhibition is showing not only the Rosetta Stone as crucial to this breakthrough, but a combination of his own stamina and intellectual creativity, the comparison of several sources, languages and scripts, and not in the least cooperation with many people in Europe, Britain and Egypt. The exhibition traces in fact the development of what we now know as Egyptology from the Middle Ages to the present. I will not forget to look at legal sources in this fascinating story of philological work, the acquisition of cultural heritage by European countries and the challenges of Egyptology in our days. By choosing Egypt as a subject I follow my tradition of starting a new year with a contribution about an empire or imperial laws.

A story spanning centuries

My own encounters with hieroglyphs did not start at the British Museum in 1980 and admiring the Rosetta Stone, but already earlier on. In 1976 I saw a copy of the Rosetta Stone in the municipal museum of Figeac, Champollion’s place of birth. He was truly one of the few heroes in philology from the nineteenth century, next to scholars such as the Grimm brothers and Wilhelm von Humboldt. The exhibition catalogue does not start with the heroic struggle between Thomas Young and Champollion, but takes you first to the fascination for Egypt that started much earlier. The first chapter of the exhibition catalogue, edited and largely written by Ilona Regulski, is aptly called ‘The truth in translation’. She charts attempts at decipherment from medieval Islamic scholars upto 1835, the age of the European vogue of collecting Egyptian antiquities at all costs by governments, tourists, museums and scholars. Regulski opens the catalogue with an introduction to the aims of the exhibition, followed by a lucid and concise explanation of the writing system in the hieroglyphs by Pascal Vernus. The crucial features of hieroglyphs are the combined use of both logograms representing concepts and actual objects on one hand, and using ideograms for phonetic representation on the other hand. This combination worked for centuries as a code which proved very hard to crack.

Champollion's manuscript and the first edition of the Lettre à M. Dacier, 1822
Champollion’s manuscript and the first edition of the Lettre à M. Dacier, 1822 – image source British Museum

The second chapter describes the almost legendary race to decipherment led by Thomas Young (1773-1829) and Champollion (1790-1832) accelerated by the finding of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. Regulski shows that both men were only occasionly the archetypical chauvinist enemies so often depicted. Far more important were their individual choices to prefer at some point hieratic, demotc or Coptic script as the main road to understanding. Perhaps more important was Young’s vision of Egypt as a beneficiary of wisdom from classical Greece against Champollion’s perspective of Egypt as the origin of classical Antiquity. When you cloak such perspectives in terms of supremacy and inferiority a far more pervasive bias can easily develop. Both men made some wrong turns in their research. Champollion was very lucky with his scholarly training, his connections and his choice of other resources to combine with the Rosetta Stone. It was not just a matter of focusing on the royal names in cartouches, but of gaining insight in the peculiar qualities of hieroglyphs where logograms mostly represented concepts, but also could be used to represent sounds in the rendering of foreign names, such as Ptolemaios and Cleopatra, the two names that finally brought Champollion on the right track to complete and reliable decipherment. With the beautiful and most telling illustrations in view from several museums it becomes clear, too, how much easier it is now to compare such sources. On the website of the British Museum Regulski presents a concise overview of the steps taken by Young and Champollion in their attempts at decipherment.

My curiosity for hieroglyphs grew even more by an episode of the National Geographic tv series Lost treasures of Egypt on the written legacy of Tutanchamon. Deft research of a number of objects connected with this pharaoh led to the suspicion some objects were originally destined for or commissioned by a forgotten Egyptian queen who was almost literally written out of Egyptian history. The most obvious way to do this was tampering with the names in cartouches. In one case the new name was obviously superimposed with a different kind of gold leaf. In some cases there are indications similar attempts were done for Tutanchamon’s legacy, too.

In the third chapter of the catalogue Regulski leads you away from the pharaohs, religion and Egyptian dignitaries to the impact of decipherment for understanding Egypt’s culture and society at large. For example, rather slowly grew any true understanding of Egyptian poetry and its genres, as shown by Richard Bruce Parkinson in his contribution.

‘Rediscovering ancient Egypt’ is the title of the fourth chapter, but it could have been named discovery equally well. Understanding the pharaohs, their reigns and dynasties certainly did not escape from reinterpretation thanks to finally being able to read and understand hieroglyphs, hieratic and demotic script correctly. Bilingualism during the Ptolemaic period comes into view, as are the concept of time and views of the afterlife. Personal life gets attention, too, with subjects such as crime, family, marriage and divorce, satire, love, medicine and magic. Several specialists contributed to this chapter. Here and elsewhere in the catalogue you will find texts in translations as examples of particular source genres.

In the short paragraph on crime (pp. 201-204) Ilona Regulski looks at a variety of texts, from royal decrees to court proceedings and private notes. Legal documents could touch many subjects, including mortgages and loans. The evidence is preserved in inscriptions and papyri. For the history of daily life and family relations Susanne Beck points to the existence of family archives (pp. 204-209). The footnotes to both paragraphs point you to relevant literature. The great strength here is showing all kinds of documentary evidence and objects.

Banner Leipzig Digital Rosetta Stone

In the fifth and final chapter new approaches are presented. In the first paragraph Monica Betti and Franziska Naether introduce the Leipzig project for an online version of the Rosetta Stone. Fayza Haikal connects in her short contribution the decipherment of Egyptian scripts and the ongoing efforts of Egyptologists with the search for Egyptian identity. Her point of using knowledge of Arabic poetry to understand aspects of ancient Egyptian poetry is well made. Egypt’s fragmented ancient cultural heritage belongs both to mankind and to living Egyptians who can contribute from inside Egypt – mentally and physically – to research into Egypt’s multi-layered history. This contribution certainly serves its purpose to underline the need to prevent a kind of de vous, chez vous, sans vous in doing research concerning Egypt’s history of more than four millennia.

Matters for reflection

My summaries of the five main chapters of this splendid catalogue do hardly justice to the wealth of information and insights they bring, and to the wonderful accessible writing style of all contributors. The catalogue is a heavy book, but it is hard to put it down and not to read it in one session!

By showing objects now held in various countries and bringing in the assistance of scholars from many corners of the world the catalogue and the exhibition show graphically some of the dilemmas facing current Egyptologists. How must one deal with the fragile remains of antiquities that were taken from Egypt with care or carelessly from their original context? Hardly any untouched mummy has survived nowadays, and the few ones that do show – thanks to modern research methods – things we would not know in any other way. Even when you return objects to Egypt it is not or only seldom possible to restore their original configuration. It is much to the credit of Champollion he pleaded with the Ottoman authorities to impose at least some restrictions on the large-scale industry of providing Europe indiscriminately with Egyptian antiquities. Some most valuable object genres were disregarded at all. Objects were even simply thrown away immediately because Europeans were not interested in them in the early nineteenth century. Of course some scholars and institutions tried to work diligently, but they could not always maintain high standards of conduct. Surely it is important to see that the hunt for contemporary copies of the Rosetta Stone and for similar trilingual or bilingual inscriptions did help to see this object in a wider setting. The catalogue provides you with an overview of these inscriptions in an appendix.

The catalogue with so many qualities misses only a few things. There is no list of contributors and their affiliations. For some lenders of objects their location is specified, but for most institutions this is not mentioned at all. The lenders contribute immensely to the value of this exhibition with their willingness to lend in some cases truly unique objects. The very presence of Egyptian antiquities in so many institutions all over Europe, not only in London or Paris, could hardly have been shown better. Not only the major European countries took part in the race to acquire the supposedly or really most important objects.

Egyptology as a discipline recently received heavy blows by stories about outrageous behaviour around original sources, in particular papyri. This exhibition helps to show the genuine efforts for solid and reliable study of ancient resources which outshine the selfish aims of some people who acted against fundamental principles of good science. Cooperation, comparison and critical understanding are essential for keeping research into classical Antiquity at the level the many subjects and periods included within it fully deserve.

Hieroglyphs. Unlocking ancient Egypt – London, British Museum, 13 October 2022 – 19 February 2023

A mirror of Dutch scripts: Some thoughts around a manual for palaeography

Cover Schrittspiegel by Peter Horsman and Peter Sigmond

This month at long last the third edition appeared of a renown manual for Dutch palaeography from 1500 to the mid-eighteenth century by Peter Horsman and Peter Sigmond, Schriftspiegel. Oud-Nederlandse handschriften van de 13de tot in de 18de eeuw (3rd edition, Hilversum, 2022). For at least ten years no new manual of its kind had been published in the Netherlands and Belgium, and thus I was immediately curious about this revised edition, announced last year but printed and published only now. Which differences can be found between the last and this edition? What are its qualities, and where can one wish for more? Recently reading old scripts has developed for me a new dimension making me more aware of things to be expected in guidance when reading old archival records.

Both authors of the new Schriftspiegel [Mirror of scripts] are well known for their achievements. Peter Horsman worked as an archivist at the Dordrecht archives and taught at the Archiefschool and the Universiteit van Amsterdam. Historian Peter Sigmond taught at the former Rijksarchiefschool and ended his professional career as head of collections at the Rijksmuseum. As a specialist of maritime history he taught also cultural history at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. Thus it is only natural their manual shows a bit more examples of records from the Regionaal Archief Dordrecht and on maritime history than you would expect otherwise, and these are valuable elements of this book.

The use of calligraphy books in this manual attracted my attention so much that I decided to look at some length at this subject. The paragraph on Early Modern Dutch calligraphy follows directly after my review of the new Schriftspiegel which takes its name from a seventeenth-century namesake.

Safe guidance to old scripts

I was really anxious about the way Horsman and Sigmond would introduce old scripts in this edition. They opt for a rather concise introduction aiming at clarity for novice readers, and rightly so. It is wonderful how they use the calligraphy of scripts in two early sixteenth-century manuals, among them the Spieghel der schrijfkonste (…) by Jan van de Velde (Amsterdam 1608) as a key element to familiarize readers with examples of Dutch scripts. They did not forget to include also examples of scripts closer to Germany. Some texts are even written in German. The choice of further literature is very good, even if it a bit strange to find a number of manuals dealing with both Dutch palaeography and Early Modern archival records under the heading Taal en tekstverklaring [Language and textual interpretation]. Four examples of online manuals for Dutch palaeography are mentioned, three of them without the actual URL. Among the books on Dutch chronology the authors have not added the concise work by C.C. de Glopper-Zuiderland, In tijd gemeten. Inleiding tot de chronologie (Den Haag 1999). However, I did not really know about P.G.J. Sterkenburg, Een glossarium van zeventiende-eeuws Nederlands (3rd impr., The Hague, 1981), mentioned as available also online, but this book has not been digitized for the Digitale Bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letteren nor at Delpher incidentally. Some fact checking and editorial control would have helped to avoid such glitches and the impression both authors belong to an older generation.

In my view the best part of the introduction is the very good presentation of letter forms and the development of letters. Using color photographs of documents takes this certainly to a new level. The four pages on abbreviations are pretty good, although the typography could have been clearer. Here, too, the column with colorful examples redeems this easily, although using at some points a black or grey font on a blue background is not ideal. A list of often encountered abbreviations would have been most welcome.

The variety of Dutch scripts and archival records

Of course attention should now rapidly go to the 134 examples of Dutch scripts shown in this book, going from 1279 to 1753. The authors want to show texts in Dutch, and medieval texts in Latin have not been included at all. No. 100 from 1645 is in German. There are just two texts from the late thirteenth century, twelve from the fourteenth century, and seventeen from the fifteenth century. The sixteenth century is presented with 40 examples, and for the seventeenth century 55 texts and images are shown. By the way, for some longer texts two images are shown, always accompanied by transcriptions on the left page. The eighteenth century figures with just eight examples up to 1753, an addition to the edition Zutphen 1986 which ended in 1700. As in earlier editions you can find an explanation where to start in growing order of difficulty, going from the eighteenth century to the Middle Ages.

The choice and numbering of items has changed at a few points. A rather visible oddity are some dubious references. Take the very first item, a charter from 1279, “Stadsarchief Breda, VZ0010, inv.nr. 582”. The city archive in Breda has two collections with miscellaneous additions called Varia. This reference points to collection Varia 1; compare “V-1, collectie varia” in the edition 1986. The reference to item no. 133 is simply incomplete: With “Oud-Rechterlijk Archief Haarlem, inventarisnummer 3111” they do not indicate the inventory number, this is lacking. Haarlem, Noord-Hollands Archief, 3111, Oud-Rechterlijke Archief Haarlem, inv.no. …” would be correct. It is a nice challenge to find the correct item number in the inventory, probably no. 780 (accounts, 1748).

You might guess correctly Tresoar is located at Leeuwarden which you could mistake easily for the Leeuwarden city archives, the Historisch Centrum Leeuwarden. The two locations of the Historisch Centrum Overijssel in Zwolle and Deventer are not sufficiently indicated, too. Two former professors at the Dutch school for archivists should realize adding the location is not just a wish or a whim but a necessary element in a transcription. Such infelicities should not hide the fact the authors have chosen documents from a wide range of Dutch archives, not only from the Nationaal Archief, The Hague and the provincial capitals, but also from other city and regional archives. Only Brabant and Limburg could have been presented with more items from regional archives.

In a book written by a specialist of Dutch maritime history you will be happy to see for instance a ship journal kept by Michiel Adriaansz. de Ruyter, in document no. 95 from 1633 still a young chief mate. With a view to the large overseas trade and the Dutch colonial empire some attention to Dutch connections with other countries outside Europe is only natural. As no. 90 you see the famous letter about the transaction bringing ownership of Manhattan to the Dutch in 1626. For example, no. 128 from 1703 is an attestation with the views of a Dutch woman about de swarten, “the blacks” in India. No. 123 is a document about paying ransoms for Dutch slaves in Morocco in 1687, and no. 134 from 1753 tells you about slaves in the Cape colony.

Is there any comparable manual for Dutch palaeography? The only serious competitor to this manual was published thirty years ago, the Album paleographicum XVIII Neerlandicarum. Paleografisch album van Nederland, België, Luxemburg en Frankrijk, edited by R. Baetens, C. Dekker and S. Maarschalkerweerd-Dechamps (Turnhout-Utrecht 1992) which includes also medieval documents from the tenth century onwards and documents written in Latin, Dutch, French and German. Its introduction is given in Dutch and French. It reminds me about the very real need for people not fluent in Dutch all over the world for a concise introduction in English. Horsman’s and Sigmond’s introduction deserves an English translation.

The length and details of this post should be a sure indication I think this book deserves both close inspection and a warm welcome! The strength of this manual was and remains the choice of a splendidly wide variety of documents, not in the least for those documents touching on legal history. The authors have listed them conveniently. For example, the range of document types for notarial acts is very large. Horsman and Sigmond rightly refer for more on this subject to A.F. Gehlen’s guide Notariële akten uit de 17de en 18de eeuw. Handleiding voor gebruikers (Zutphen 1986). The glossary of terms and old words brings you many words with a legal nature, a feature of earlier editions, too. Each item in the manual is given with a short and helpful introduction. The way letter forms are explained is the most salient visual change as are the color photographs, and also the format is slightly larger. I expected the highest possible quality of this new edition of a classic work for doing Dutch history, certainly when you realize it was prepared during a period with lockdowns. Surely I agree this new edition improves on the second edition.

Ironically, some things I applaud here were the very points criticized by J.L. van der Gouw in his review for the Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis 98 (1985) 414-415 of the first edition (Zutphen 1984). His prophecy that things helping amateurs and students would make them lazy is alluring, but I honestly think good guidance is not amiss when starting and long afterwards. You might almost think Horsman and Sigmond as a small revenge did not give the publication year of the third edition of Van der Gouw’s Oud schrift in Nederland (Alphen aan de Rijn, 1980).

Since July 2022 I work at the Regionaal Archief Zuid-Utrecht, Wijk bij Duurstede. Among other tasks I will help volunteers with transcribing archival records, an important recent tradition of this regional archive. Both my young and senior colleagues rightly greeted the new edition of the Schriftspiegel with enthusiasm as a valuable and serviceable manual for newcomers to old Dutch scripts, professionals and even the general public.

P.J. Horsman and J.P. Sigmond, Schriftspiegel. Oud-Nederlandse handschriften van de 13de tot in de 18de eeuw (3rd edition, Hilversum: Verloren, 2022; 296 pp.; ISBN 9789087049607).

A bibliographical excursion on Dutch Early Modern calligraphy

Cover of Jan van den Velde, Spieghel der schrijfkonste (...) (Rotterdam: Van Waesberghe, 1605) - image source STCN
Cover of Jan van den Velde, Spieghel der schrijfkonste (…) (Rotterdam: Van Waesberghe, 1605) – image source STCN

Using calligraphy as a start and only almost as an afterthought actual archival records is sound for a didactic purpose, going thus from the easy and recognizable to more common and even ugly scripts you encounter in actual research. I thought it would be helpful to guide you here to a digital copy of the marvellous Spieghel der schrijfkonste by Jan van der Velde, and this led me to a discovery I would have liked to avoid. I wonder very much why the authors made the mistake to state the Rijksmuseum copy shown in their manual was printed at Amsterdam in 1608. The library catalogue clearly shows as location and date of printing Rotterdam 1605, published in three parts. The Universal Short Tile Catalogue (USTC) does not mention this copy (no. 1028389). The three editions mentioned in the USTC have all derived printing locations, dates and printers.

The only digital copy I found at Umeå Universitet of this edition shows only two parts from 1605 (part I, scripts, 75 pp., and part III, scripts, 147 pp.). When you check the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands (STCN) for no. 833360815 it becomes clear the Rijksmuseum has taken its information from three separate STCN items for its library catalogue entry, but in its turn the STCN shows clearly the Rijksmuseum has several copies of this beautiful work, not only the one stemming from the Koninklijk Oudheidkundig Genootschap. Luckily the value of the introduction does not mar other qualities of the new Schriftspiegel, but a bit more carefulness with the very book the authors took as one of their models would have been right. Dealing with a book without a clear location and printing date – and changing titles! – is a difficult matter, in particular for a multi volume set like this one. In addition this work has also been translated soon, another thing to complicate matters to be investigated. I will not try to solve these bibliographical questions here entirely, but just wanting to give you a link to a digitized version led me to this addendum.

Let’s end here with sending those interested in seventeenth-century calligraphy to the fine commented list of (digitized) works at Penna Volans. This particular Van de Velde edition does not figure in it with a link to a digital version, only for its title page. However, the Allard Pierson at Amsterdam, the combined special collections and university museum of the Universiteit van Amsterdam, put images of it online at Flickr among their calligraphy albums, alas with few meta-data, thus leaving you in the dark which of their three copies they used.

Horsman and Sigmond also give some examples from Cornelis Dirckz. Boissens’ Exemplaren van veelderhande nederlantsche gheschriften (…) (Amsterdam 1617), and here, too, you face the challenge of finding a copy at all. The STCN nor the USTC does mention it. The Karlsruher Virtueller Katalog lists copies at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin [Kunstbibliothek, OS 5016 quer] and the Bibliothèque nationale universitaire at Strasbourg. The Berlin catalogue clearly indicated the place of printing and date have been inferred, and adds question marks. It leaves me wondering a bit what book the authors really saw. In view of its rarity and the changing titles of editions a clear reference to the copy used is simply necessary. These Early Modern calligraphy books remain a feast for the eye and a bibliographical challenge.

A postscript

The Noord-Hollands Archief in Haarlem has digitized its copies of several caliigraphy books created by Jan van de Velde (1568-1623), among them its copy of the Spieghel der Schrijfkonste, dated 1605 (part I, signature 185 H 22:1).

A digital approach to the Early Modern inquisition in Portugal

Banner e-Inquisition

Sometimes a word evokes almost automatically an association with a distinct historical period. The word inquisition is first and foremost linked with medieval Europe. On this blog and website I explain why speaking about the inquisition is misleading. In Early Modern Europe the Spanish and Italian inquisition received most attention from historians, but in Italy you have to distinguish between Rome and Venice. Recently the project TraPrInq started for the transcription and study of records of the inquisition in Portugal between 1536 and 1821. The project is accompanied by the blog e-Inquisition hosted by the international Hypotheses network. In this post I will look at the plans of the project team and its importance for studying both Portuguese and Brazilian history.

Records from four centuries

The blog for TraPrInq itself show nicely how much this project is in a starting phase. While preparing this post its layout changed. At the blog a concise presentation of the project is offered in French, Portuguese and English. The core of the current team is the Centro de Humanidades (CHAM) at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. Alas I could not find any information about this project running in 2022 and 2023 at the website of the CHAM. However, it is stated TraPrInq is connected with an earlier CHAM project on censorship and the Portuguese inquisition. One of the main objectives is to create transcriptions of court records using the Transkribus technology, discussed here earlier in a post about Early Modern court records and legal consultations in Germany. In fact Hervé Baudry, the blog editor, is responsible for the Transkribus model for Latin-Portuguese print from the seventeenth century. By the way, this and other models are also present for free use without registration at the recently launched platform Transkribus AI.


As for now 140 records have been transcribed, good for some 190,000 words, a fair base for a HTR (Handwritten Text Recogniition) model in Transkribus. I was somewhat mystified by the utter absence of information about the actual location of the records to be transcribed and studied. The clue for a unmistakable identification is the fact the records stem from a tribunal with jurisdiction both in Portugal and Brazil. The Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo (ANTT) in Lisbon is the holding institution. It is not a bad idea to start with one of its four virtual exhibitions concerning the inquisition in Portugal. preferably with Inquisição da Lisboa online telling you about the nearly 20,000 registers for which 2,3 million digital images have been put online. The ANTT has within the archive of the Tribunal de Santo Oficio (TSO) records of the Inquisição de Lisboa (IL). The scope note and inventory in Portuguese of this archival subfonds is available online at the :Portuguese Digitarq portal. Series 028 contains the processos. Digital images of documents are directly linked to numerous items.

Perhaps due to my unfamiliarity with the Portuguese inquisition I tried to look a bit wider for information about its archival traces. The wiki of FamilySearch brings you only to records for a few years digitized earlier and available at SephardicGen. The online inventory of the ANTT is mentioned by Family Search, but not its inclusion of digitized records. It is a nice exercise to compare versions of the relevant Wikipedia articles in English, Portuguese and Spanish, in particular for their bibliographies and linguistic preferences. Luckily I found a special of the Brazilian journal Politeia: Historie e Sociedade 20/1 (2021) with a Dossiê Temático Tribunal do Santo Ofício Português, 200 anos após extinção: História e Historiografia opening with a contribution by Grayce Mayre Bonfim Souza about the archive of the Tribunal do Santo Oficio.

Let me not forget to note here the CHAM has created an online index of the fonds Manuscritos do Brasil held at the ANTT. The e-Inquisition blog contains currently apart from the brief introduction five articles,four in Portuguese and one in English touching a wide variety of themes, The recent brief article in English brings you an overview of the palaeographers and historians in the project team. Baudry wrote for example about censorship in the books of Henricus Cornelius Agrippa and (in French) about the famous trial of Manuel Maria de Barbosa du Bocage, with images and transcriptions of four documents. Baudry’s article about Pedro Lupina Freire brings a seventeenth-century notary into the spotlights who became an agent for the tribunal. A most fascinating article is concerned with the double use of asterisks by censors, both to hide information and to highlight matters.

No doubt more information about the TraPrInq project will soon appear at the e-Inquisition blog and at the website of the CHAM, in particular concerning the progress at Transkribus of the creation of the new HTR model for Portuguese Early Modern script, and the location where transcriptions will become available online for the wider scholarly community. Thanks to this transcription project the records of the Inquisição de Lisboa will surely show more of their rich content touching many parts of the Early Modern world, not just Jewish and colonial history. The combination of a detailed inventory, digitized images and digital transcriptions will make it possible to ask different questions. This project shows at least the very real need for trained palaeographers, but I am sure the knowledge of legal historians, too, will be necessary to tap this wealth of information.

An addendum

In Spring 2022 the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal held the exposition Bibliotecas limpas. Censura dos livros impressos nos séculos XV a XIX curated by Hervé Baudry. The virtual exposition Bocage 1735-1805 created by the BN brings you to the life and works of this poet; the chronology mentions his trial in 1802.

Censorship by the Portuguese inquisition is the subject of the portal Inquisition in Action launched on June 20, 2022 by the CIUHCT, also in Lisbon.

Getting close to medieval papal registers

Logo Archivio Apostolico VaticanoEven when you are interested in totally different subjects in medieval history emperors, kings and popes attract your attention. Their power and authority make them a natural focus for research, also because the most powerful people and institutions leave a rich track in archival records and manuscripts. Upheavals such as wars, fires and revolutions destroyed parts of this legacy in parchment and paper, but a massive amount of information has survived five or more centuries. The papal curia is rightly seen as one of the earliest and most active medieval bureaucracies. In 2019 the Vatican archives received a new name, Archivio Apostolico Vaticano (AAV) instead of the familiar Archivio Segreto Vaticano, a term which could led people to believe enormous secrets still await discovery. In my view the sheer number of documents, the challenge of languages, medieval scripts and intricate legal matters form the real barrier for abundant use of this archive in a class of its own. In this post I will look at the ways medieval papal registers are now made accessible in print and online. However, it is necessary and useful, too, to look also at least briefly at ways to find documents held at the AAV.

Logo XVIth congress 2022

This post is also meant as a salute to the upcoming XVIth International Congress of Medieval Canon Law, to be held at St. Louis, MO, from July 17 to 23, 2022, and as a service to anyone interested in studying pivotal documents for the study of papal history and medieval canon law. For a real understanding of the documents mentioned here it will not do to merely having a glance at them, you will need to immerse yourself into them, and this will enrich you.

In this post the focus will be on access to the original documents, and much less on projects with databases for papal documents. A number of databases and projects for medieval charters is presented in a recent post.

Finding papal registers from the Middle Ages

Two years ago I stated in a post about digital resources rather flatly you cannot find any online inventory at the website of the AAV. This was not entirely true. In fact the four series of medieval papal registers are the very exception to my observation. I had better give you immediately the links to the inventories for these series:

Registra Avenioniensia (RA) 1-349
Registra Lateranensia (RL) 1-138 / 498-534 / 925-1126, 1128
Registra Supplicationum (RS) 1-265 / 479 – 509 / 961-1169
Registra Vaticana (RV) 1-545 / 772-884

These inventories can be found in the section for publications of the AAV website. I had not realized that the lists with the contents of the four cd-rom sets give you in fact at least a partial inventory of these registers. The cd-roms are only available at research libraries and cannot be accessed worldwide online. You will notice with me these four inventories seemingly do not list all registers of the four series, and I will come back to this fact quickly. For your convenience the overview of papal registers in chronological order by pope from Innocent III to Benedict XIII offered by the Centre Pontifical d’Avignon is very useful.

The modern editions of papal registers from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries form the core of the subscription-only online resource Ut per litteras apostolicas hosted by Brepols. The overview of the Brepolis resources portal gives you a useful concise list of the modern editions published by French scholars since the late nineteenth century. In a period with no or very limited physical access to libraries I felt hard pressed to find a list of these editions in print. My copy of Raoul van Caenegem and François Ganshof, Encyclopedie van de geschiedenis der middeleeuwen (Ghrnt 1962) is a bit old. This first edition in Dutch contains relevant information at pages 211 to 215. Somewhat newer is my copy of Winfried Baumgart, Bücherverzeichnis zur deutschen Geschichte. Hilfsmittel-Handbücher-Quellen (12th ed., Munich 1997) with information on pages 170 to 173. The information given by Olivier Guyotjeannin, Jacques Pycke and Benoît-Michel Tock (eds.), Diplomatique médiévale (Turnhout 1993) at pp. 333-338 contains less details for the two major French edition series, but the editors send you rightly to the book of Thomas Frenz, Papsturkunden des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit (Stuttgart 1986).

On April 24, 2021 Yvonne Searle published a valuable post with links to various resources with editions of medieval papal documents. The editions of papal registers from the thirteenth and fourteenth century form just a section of her contribution. For these editions she points mainly to digitized versions in the Internet Archive and the Hathi Trust Digital Library. I hesitated to add here for a number of these registers links to Gallica and Princeton Theological Commons, but it would have been repeating a job already sufficiently well done.

Not only for English readers you might sooner or later, but preferably as soon as possible turn to the guide by the late Leonard Boyle, A survey of the Vatican Archives and of its medieval holdings (Toronto 1972; new edition 2001). Almost seventy pages of this book deal with medieval papal registers. Even a cursory reading of these pages should make you aware of the danger of any superficial approach of these registers. The general remarks in my post should be seen in the light of Boyle’s detailed explanations and telling examples. As a student I was explicitly told to read first this classic guide before going to Rome or Vatican City. His book should for once and all teach you the fact you need to know not only about the inventories or the editions, but also use every reliable guide you can find. Just reading Boyle’s remark that some Avignonese registers have been placed among the Registra Vaticana and vice versa should serve as a wake up call. For English readers his remarks about the contents of the various calendars created in England from papal registers are a must read. Instead of going blissfully unaware to digitized calendars at the British History portal reading Boyle’s explanations should alert you to many things concerning the study of papal registers.

Guidance to records of the medieval papacy

Logo ArchiveGrid

Far more voluminous than the surprisingly concise guide offered by Boyle is the guide created by Francis Blouin et alii (eds.), An Inventory and Guide to Historical Documents of the Holy See (Oxford 1998). First of all this fruit of the Michigan project (1984-2004) goes beyond the AAV also to other archives in Rome. There is an online version of Blouin’s guide at ArchiveGrid showing introductions to many hundred archival collections, including to the series with papal registers from the High Middle Ages. You can also benefit from the 2019 edition of the Indice dei Fondi e relativi mezzi di descrizione e di ricerca dell’Archivio segreto Vaticano is available online (PDF). The concise introduction to medieval papal records offered at the website of the Vatican Film Library should be mentioned here, too.

For studying records of the medieval papacy there is a wealth of scholarly literature. Some most useful basic introductions to the most important relevant works can be found in the section Analyzing Sources of the multilingual Swiss history portal Ad fontes (Universität Zurich). Searching for relevant scholarly literature is much helped by the online bibliography of the Regesta Imperii project in Mainz. The Regesta Imperii lists among its publications also the volumes of Papstregesten, systematic summaries of papal charters for the period 800 to 1198, an important help in studying this resource. An online resource in Munich, the Bibliographischer Datenbank Historische Grundwissenschaften, can be helpful, too, for finding literature. Both the database in Mainz and Munich can be searched with keywords (Schlagwort), the Munich database only in German. The portal LEO-BW (Landeskunde Entdecken Online-Baden Württemberg) has within its Südwestedeutsche Archivalienkunde [Archivistics for South-West Germany) in the section on charters (Urkunden) an illustrated introduction to papal charters, Papsturkunden by Anja Thaller. She points to online resources and mentions literature on several aspects.

Finding digitized papal records and manuscripts

In the compass of just one blog contribution it would in the end not help much to put in here literally everything. At my legal history website Rechtshistorie the page about canon law mentions a fair number of online projects concerning the medieval papacy. Over the years I have written here several posts on documents and manuscripts connected with the medieval papacy. In 2016 I published for example a post about the Palatini, the manuscripts originally from the library of the dukes of the Pfalz in Heidelberg brought to the Vatican Library in 1623 and now being digitized. Some manuscripts returned to Heidelberg, others remain in Vatican City.

Finding digitized manuscripts in the Vatican Library is easy thanks to the portal Digital Vatican Library. Perhaps it is more surprising to find also digitized archival records of the papacy at this portal. In my 2020 post about the 1352-1358 interdict on the city of Dordrecht I mentioned a number of digitized source editions, not only for the Avignonese papacy, but also for Dutch medieval history and the Vatican. My biographical research into a particularly interesting lawyer connected with the Dordrecht case led me to a latarium, a digitized register of verdicts and fines from the civil tribunal in Avignon (BAV, Vat. lat. 14774). Fourteen lataria ( BAV, Vat. lat. 14761 to 14774) have been digitized. Within the section for archives of this digital library you can find several small archival collections. There are also five notarial registers from Orange. I am quite aware that it might be possible to find more archival records among the digitized manuscripts of the BAV, and I hope to add them here or elsewhere.

It is harder to find digitized records online from the Archivio Apostolico Vaticano. Registers Introitus et Exitus of the Camera Apostolica between 1316 and 1324 (John XXII) 1334 and 1342 (Benedict XII) are the subject of digital editions as part of the project Ressources comptables en Dauphiné, Provence, Savoie et Venaissin (XIIIe-XVe siècle) with medieval accounts from four French regions and the papacy in Avignon and the region around this city, the Venaissin. Here, too, figures a papal register (Reg.Av. 46) among quite different resources, but it contains indeed accounts. In 2020 I thought this edition included also digitized images, but this is not the case.

Logo Metascripta, Vatican Film Library

Sometimes an approach from another direction can be helpful. We are used nowadays to viewing online digitized manuscripts and archival records in full color. The manuscripts digitized by the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana show a sometimes irritating watermark. Aaron Macks helps you every week to information about recently digitized manuscripts from the BAV. In former times scholars would often have no choice but to use black-and-white microfilms. The Vatican Film Library at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO, offers not only microfilms but also a useful overview by genre of manuscripts at the Vatican Library, an overview of papal registers, and the Metascripta portal for online research with Vatican manuscripts, mainly Vaticani Latini. On the page for medieval law of my website I mention more (digitized) microfilm collections.

A few years ago a team at the Università Roma Tre started the project In Codice Ratio for creating computerized character recognition in order to make possible automate transcription of handwritten text. In this project archival records from the AAV will be transcribed. As for now you can find the data set with the initial input and the ground truth, the set of images and transcriptions with a degree of error free results.

Many roads, many wishes

This post brings you perhaps less than you had expected, but it is longer than I assumed. Originally I planned a post dealing with text editions, digital libraries, inventories and digitized archival records. In the end I am happy I could recently write here about databases with medieval charters, among them papal charters, and in 2020 the papacy at Avignon figured large in a post. Thus the results here are at least less confusing and profuse. However, it was necessary to show indeed the variety of resources and some of the difficulties in using them for historical research, and in particular for legal history. If there had been a clear starting point for using online digitized records at the AAV I would surely have started here with them. The sheer mass of relevant text editions is overwhelming, although the Online Medieval Sources Bibliography is perhaps too generous in adding the label Papacy to many editions. Using multiple resources has as one implication thinking out of the box and working interdisciplinary without much ado. Legal history, too, should not be a confined discipline, a kind of silo as is the current phrase. Our discipline is well placed to question the use of digital resources when you or your students do not have the necessary skills and training to use them to their full extent. Combining such training and experience in using original sources should help you to tap the wealth of digitized medieval sources, and at the same time to be aware of what more can be found, what has been lost and which traces of such lost resources can enrich your research.

A postscript

Of course I was curious enough to find out quickly more about digitized registers among the manuscripts in the digital Vatican Library. For example, the manuscript BAV, Ross. 733 is a fifteenth-century register of taxes paid for the collation of diocesan sees. However, I should first of all add some registers from Avignon, starting with Vat. Lat 14775 with criminal inquests for the years 1365-1368 (copy in black and white), Vat. lat 14776 and Vat. lat. 14777 with verdicts in civil cases from 1364 and 1372, Vat.lat 14478, 14479 (fragments) and 14780, also from the fourteenth century. The descriptions of these registers clearly lack the word latarium for quick identification and grouping of Vat. Lat. 14761 to 14780.

Klaus Graf alerts at Archivalia to the fact a number of digitized edition of papal registers within the Hathi Trust Digital Library can be reached in open access only from the United States. Thus there is indeed space for another list of digital copies of these editions. Graf points also to some resources from Germany.

A legal window on late medieval material culture

Banner of the DALME project

Archaeologists and historians in general do things differently. Archaeologists search and interpret material objects and traces of human history hidden from sight in the soil, and historians look at still existing documentary evidence, be they written documents or artefacts above ground level. Thus the title of the digital project The Documentary Archaeology of Late Medieval Europe (DALME) created at Harvard University is at least intriguing. The core and clue of this projects are written documents telling us about objects sometimes no longer existing which offer a glimpse of medieval households.

Without twisting the evidence of these inventories you can view a number of them as the results of actions required by law or statutes. In this post I want to highlight these legal dimensions and look at the qualities of the DALME project which has been awarded the 2022 Digital Humanities and Multimedia Studies Prize of the Medieval Academy of America.

Precious traces of material surroundings

Many scholars are involved with this project, both at Harvard and elsewhere. The project is led by Daniel Lord Smail, Gabriel Pizzorno and Laura Morreale. The principal objective of the DALME project is to bring together both inventories in the holdings of archives and objects nowadays kept by museums. The project aims also at developing a common vocabulary and a digital infrastructure facilitating research from various disciplines. The inventories and objects can be approached in several ways and will be accompanied by essays. Until now only three essays have been published at the project website. The latest essay by Marcus Tomaszewski published in January 2022 looks at a German tradition of poems with inventories. Laura Morreale looked in her 2020 essay on enslaved persons in fourteenth-century Florence. In the general overview much stress is put on the difficulties of reading and deciphering medieval scripts and languages, but this is not an unique feature for studying medieval history. Classicists dealing with for example the Near East face similar obstacles.

The introduction to the methodology of the DALME project stresses a kind of material turn that has influenced scholars in many disciplines in the past decades. Inventories are much valued as a window on daily life. Objects are every bit as important to tell us the history of humanity as written sources. It seems logical to bring them together to enhance making relevant comparisons of material life and circumstances.

It is important,too,to have a look also at the DALME workflow for inventories. Before images of documents gain their final form in the system behind DALME a lot of steps are to be set. These images are used to create transcriptions and to provide annotation. The information thus created is subsequently parsed and re-encoded. For creating a uniform and searchable terminology the Art and Architecture Thesaurus (AAT) of The Getty is used.

One should not overlook the section with project publications nor the bibliography pointing to source editions, scholarly literature, glossaries and dictionaries and other relevant publications, often with links to digital versions. Links becomes only visible when your cursor arrives at them. Obviously the study of Daniel Lord Smail, Legal plunder. Households and debt collection in late medieval Europe (Cambridge, MA, 2016) has stimulated the creation of the DALME project; incidentally, you can view his bibliography online. There is no section with general online resources, and thus the name of Joseph Byrne and his online bibliography of medieval and Early Modern wills and probate inventories is missing. Byrne points for example to a number of articles by Martin Bertram published in the journal Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken (QFIAB) and in other journals on testaments from Bologna. Issues from 1958 onwards of QFIAB can be seen online at the Perspectivia portal. Among general resources for tracing relevant literature and editions the online bibliography for medieval studies of the Regesta Imperii in Mainz, and the Online Medieval Sources Bibliography should take their rightful place. The latter has even a preset filter for material culture. A recent article by R.C. Allen and R.W. Unger about their Global Commodities Prices Database is mentioned, but there is no link to their database. It is good to see the work of Daniel Williman and Karen Corsano, The spoils of the Pope and the pirates, 1357: the complete legal dossier from the Vatican Archives (2nd edition, 2014) has been included.

Eight collections of inventories

I had honestly thought my remarks about the bibliography of the DALME project would form my last grumbles in this post, but when you choose in the Features menu for objects you will find just a few objects discussed in sometimes very short essays. Maybe this section will be enlarged soon, but now it is still nearly empty.

The Collections section brings you to eight collections. You can search or browse them. Both options come with very practical filters. In the browsing mode you can use a filter for record type showing you graphically all kinds of legal documents and the various genres of inventories. When you choose to explore the collections you can navigate an interactive map of Europe. DALME brings you at this moment nearly 500 records.

Two collections show immediately in the title their legal nature, 58 records for Florentine wards (1381-1393) and insolvent households in Bologna (1285-1299) with 41 records. The section with ecclesiastical inventories focuses currently on French priests and canons. It will contain in the near future inventories from some well-known cathedrals and monasteries. DALME shows its strength in particular in presenting 50 Jewish inventories from France, Germany and Spain, a rare resource. Tax seizures, inquests into crimes and notarial acts or services formed the legal ground to create these records. Apart from a collection focusing on records from cities in Northern Lombardy, from Marseille and the region around this town, with 168 records the largest collection, there is a collection for the States of Savoy (24 records) and a miscellaneous collection, good for 121 records. Each collection comes with a general introduction, a section on its goals and objectives, explanations about the sample, some highlights and information about the intellectual owner of and contributors to a particular DALME collection.

In a second section with four categories you can approach partial and fragmentary lists created for seizures, estimates, sales and tariffs. Currently only a small number of sales and estimates can be viewed.

For my own pleasure I searched in Dutch online resource for an inventory made in 1297 of goods found at the convent of the Hospitaller Knights of St. John in Utrecht and transferred to a canon of the Oudmunster collegiate chapter and Jan van Duvenvoorde. The inventory in this charter has been identified as a list of goods belonging to count Floris V of Holland who had stayed there in Utrecht just before he was killed near Muiderberg on June 27, 1296. You can find editions of the charter in the Oorkondenboek van het Sticht Utrecht tot 1301 (1297 April 6, OSU V, no. 2812) and the Oorkondenboek van Holland en Zeeland tot 1299 (OHZ V, no. 3268). The presence of chivalric cloths, many gloves and silver objects is indeed telling. Alas the original of this charter no longer exists, but seventeenth-century copies of it have survived.

Some early impressions

An example of the record view in DALME
An example of the record view in DALME, here with a Florentine inventory from 1381 – Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Magistrato dei pupilli avanti il principato 4, f. 71r

When searching inventories at DALME a few things become clear. You can currently only find items in their original languages or when they are mentioned in the record description, and not yet using the promised thesaurus function. In my view a major feature is thus currently not yet present. There is a difference between records taken directly from archival sources and those taken over from existing editions. In some cases a part of a document has not been transcribed because it does not contain a part of the proper household inventory. For the document shown here above with 31 folia this restriction is most sensible.

To be honest, I feel a bit baffled by the laurels given to this project in this stage. In my view the report about the 2022 DHMS Award shows a cavalier attitude to some of the clear deficiencies and missing qualities of DALME in its current state. Of course I can see that bringing together documents in twelve languages, providing images and transcriptions and commentaries is surely a feat. Creating 500 records in one year is not a particularly large number. DALME does aim at open access and easy interoperability, but the report states it is still unclear whether third-party software can harvest directly from DALME. The use of TEI for encoding the records and Zotero for the bibliography is commendable, but why create your own remix of tools for the management systems behind the screens? At GitHub you can find the necessary technical information about the databases of DALME and the mix of tools applied for it, but no direct link is given to the bibliography at Zotero. For all its qualities Zotero is notably weak when it comes to actually searching a group library within it. The twelve languages do not return in the choice of glossaries and dictionaries in the DALME bibliography.

DALME’s relatively low number of records for inventories, the very low number of objects and the lack of integration between them, are quite visible. Add to this the uncertainty about reuse and the absence of a fundamental essay on the legal nature of many documents, and you have grounds for reasonable doubts about the core qualities of this digital project. For some collections you find more or less detailed information about the kind of legal documents, but as for now there are no general essays introducing the various source genres. Contributions by legal historians would here be most welcome.

Header website Medeival Academy of America

Let’s for a moment turn away from DALME and look more generally at criteria and standards for evaluating digital projects. A few years ago the Medieval Academy of America developed a serious basic set of standards for its database Medieval Digital Resources (MDR), discussed here in 2019. For viewing images the use of a standard such as IIIF is recommended, but this has not been used at DALME. However, its images are at least zoomable. Luckily, DALME seems otherwise compliant with the MAA’s standards advocated at its database and guide for medieval digital resources. By the way, I could not help using MDR to search quickly for other projects concerning material culture. Using the preset filter for this subject I could only view the first page of the results; going to the next page ended at an empty search form. MDR does contain numerous online dictionaries and bibliographies. A number of them has been included in the DALME bibliography.

A medeival key - image Portable Antiquties Netherlands
A medieval key, c. 1375-1500, an example of a early comb-bit key, length 52 mm – private collection, PAN no. 00013245 – image Portable Antiquities Netherlands

The DALME project comes with high aims based on sound research. I truly expected 3D images of objects or at least integration with one museum catalogue for medieval objects or a portal for archaeological objects, such as Portable Antiquities Netherlands. A year after its launch some wishes to make DALME outstanding could perhaps have been already fulfilled. I could not help noticing that for example the collections from Florence and Bologna are a century apart of each other, and thus comparisons are not as straightforward as possible, even though such comparisons remain challenging. As for the Florentine documents, a choice from the early fifteenth century would have invited a comparison with data in the Online Catasto for 1427-1429, created by the late David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, and hosted at Brown University. It is reassuring to find a helpful table with some suggested equivalent terms in various languages and a clear list of online dictionaries in the classroom section. In an upcoming seminar Laura Morreale (Georgetown University) will focus on editing and transcribing Florentine documents.


How does this project compare to similar projects elsewhere? I looked briefly at the BoschDoc portal for documents concerning the Dutch painter Jheronimus Bosch. Its search possibilities are impressive. Some eighty inventories have been included, many of them with images, transcriptions, translations and references to relevant literature. The background information, in particular for technical matters, is much more restricted than for DALME, but it does contain a useful list of transcription criteria. The difficulty of scripts and languages is bewailed at DALME, but the actual approach to overcome them is not made completely explicit nor are solutions actually implemented or visible. Hopefully Laura Morreale and her colleagues can quickly add their set of transcription criteria to DALME.

The fact I devoted a rather lengthy review to DALME indicates indeed my opinion that in the end we can welcome a valuable resource for medieval historians at large. Its flaws have to be redeemed, but they help in a way to view similar projects much clearer. I must add that navigating the menus for background information was not as easy as using the collections themselves. The larger essays at DALME are certainly worth your attention and wet the appetite for more. I would be hard pressed to determine whether DALME is a pilot project or a project in its beta phase. In my view DALME is not yet a convincing winner of the DHMS award. Despite all drawbacks Smail, Pizzorno and Morreale deserve praise for their initiative, as do the other scholars who worked hard to provide images, transcriptions and additional information. This international project brings us for now a kind of showcase of what can become a resource not just to use for your own goals, but to discuss with historians from other disciplines as an exercise in rethinking your approaches to medieval documents and objects. The lacks and omissions at DALME should help you to raise your own standards, to apply standards for data exchange with other resources, and to reflect on the use of evaluation standards for digital projects.

Some afterthoughts

After publishing this post I quickly realized some additions might be helpful. A fine example of an image database for medieval and Early Modern material culture is REALonline of the Institut für Realienkunde des Mittelalters und der frühen Neuzeit (IMAREAL) in Krems an der Donau. In its journal Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture Online (MEMO) the issue no. 7 (December 2020) was devoted to the theme “Textual Thingness”. In this issue the article by Christina Antenhofer, ‘Inventories as Material and Textual Sources for Late Medieval and Early Modern Social, Gender and Cultural History (14th-16th centuries)’, MEMO 7 (2020) 22-46, provides you among other things with a brief discussion of the various forms and (legal) origins of inventories. She mentions the entry for inventories in a German dictionary for legal history by Ruth Mohrmann, ‘Inventar’, in: Handwörterbuch zur deutschen Rechtsgeschichte II (2nd ed. Berlin 2012), cc. 1284–1285.

A great institution at 200: The École des Chartes

The bicentenary lofo of the ENC

Jubilees come in various forms. Some are obviously too arbitrary or only remotely interesting, others call rigthly for your time and attention. Among French educational institutions the grandes établissements take pride of place. The École nationale des chartes (ENC) in Paris is surely very special among them. In 2021 it celebrates its bicentenary. Although it is obvious to make a comparison with the Monumenta Germaniae Historica in Munich, commemorated here in 2019 for its own bicentenary, the ENC distinguishes itself by being a school for archivists and paleographers. In this post I will look at the fundamental aspects of the ENC, some of its former pupils and at some famous episodes from its history.

The institutional setting

The royal ordinance of February 22, 1821 for the foundation of the ENC – image ENC

Fairly recently the ENC became a part of the Université PSL (Paris Sciences & Lettres) after a period as part of the university Paris Sorbonne, hence the different URL’s for some elements of its current digital presence. I had better start here with stating that the ENC is formally not a grande école or grand établissement with an independent status, but it ranks decidedly with its equals. I should tell you also immediately I am deeply impressed by a work on the development of history as a profession in France during the nineteenth century, written by Pim den Boer, Geschiedenis als beroep. De professionalisering van de geschiedbeoefening in Frankrijk (1818-1914) (NIjmegen 1987). This study helps you very much to see major institutions, minor and major figures and developments in their context. During the nineteenth century the ENC provided France in the first place with archivists and paleographers who put their work in archives at the service of historians. The chartistes did write theses, but these stayed closed to the documents; aktengemäss was Den Boer’s vignette for their production. We tend to associate the ENC with critical source editions, but producing book length editions is a much later development. The ENC shows its core qualities in the new critical edition of the royal ordinance of February 22, 1821 founding this institution, available online as a PDF and introduced with a video.

The creation of a journal by the ENC, the Bibliothèque de l’École des Chartes (BEC) in 1839 was an initiative of the newly founded Société de l’École des Chartes. It is one of the oldest still existing scientific journals. You can find digitized issues at the Persée portal up to 2015. Among the issues from this century are some thematic volumes. With its training in the auxiliary historical sciences and its insistence on using historical research methods the ENC soon became a model institution. Dlplomatics, paleography, chronolology and sigillography are perhaps the best known auxiliary sciences for historians. These disciplines are still taught at the ENC, but next to the classic training for archivists the ENC offers four other masters. digital humanities for historians, digital humanities, transnational history and medieval studies. At the Theleme portal the ENC offers course materials, dossiers on several themes, and a number of bibliographies. You can benefit for example from the materials on book history in the Cours section. When reading Early Modern French documents you will encounter abbreviations listed in the Dictionnaire des abréviations françaises.

The ENC uniquely has both a library and a journal called bibliothèque, and both deserve some attention here. Its collections brought the library a recognition for excellence (Collections d’Excellence). Of course there is also a bibliothèque numérique, with apart form licensed resources also three digital collections from its own holdings, and three virtual exhibits. For the theses of students the library has created a subdomain in its digital library called ThENC@. On a second subdomain Theses you search in all these since 1840. PhD theses defended at the ENC between 2013 and 2020 are conveniently mentioned in a list.

Celebrating a bicentenaire

Of course it is clear the projected celebrations for the bicentenaire could only partially proceed in its original planned format. I will therefore skip presenting the program, except for the special issue on the jubilee published by the history journal L’Histoire (PDF). It is much more interesting to look at some of the educational platforms creaetd by the ENC, one of them put online only a few weeks ago.

The French sense for structure has led the ENC to create yet another subdomain for is applications with the nice abbreviation DH, because a number of them are a part of digital humanities. You can have a look at applications under development, too. The best known is perhaps Éditions en ligne de l’École des chartes (Élec), with currently 32 electronic editions. A few years ago I wrote here a contribution about Graziella Pastore’s edition of the Livre de jostice et de plet. The most used online edition is probably the great dictionary – actually formally only a glossary – for medieval Latin created by Charles de Fresne du Cange. The theme range of the editions is really wide. There are also some acts of scientific congresses, and for example a repertory for medieval French translations of texts in classical Latin and Greek. Among other projects I simply did not know about the online version of the Dictionnaire topographique de la France (DicoTopo,) a very useful tool for tracing French (historical) geographical locations.

I had expected to find here also a reference to the Theleme portal, but the ENC views this as an educational resource. Theleme stands for Techniques pour l’Histoire en Ligne:: Études, Manuels, Exercices, Bibliographies, a host of things much needed by (French) historians. The bibliographies for the historical auxiliary disciplines are splendid. Among the tutorials (cours) I would single out those dealing with book and printing history. The Dictionnaire des abréviations françaises should inspire palaeographers worldwide to create similar tools showing abbreviations for their own country and language. The dossiers documentaires offer both historical and palaeographic commentaries for images of charters and other documents in French and Latin from France. They offer students a most useful introduction in studying medieval and later documents.

The latest addition to the fleet of subdomains and digital projects of the ENC is ADELE (Album de diplomatique en ligne), an online project providing images of medieval charters for diplomatics, the study of charters as an auxiliary historical discipline, a classic activity at the ENC since its foundation.

Beyond reading old scripts

Being able to study old scripts was perhaps the thing most clear to outsiders about chartistes. It was not a coincidence professors at and former students of the ENC got involved in looking at the infamous document posing itself as evidence in the Dreyfus case around 1900. Interestingly chartistes were found both among the dreyfusards, those defending captain Dreyfus, and among his fierce opponents. In an earlier contribution I looked at this case and the importance of a newly found secret dossier. I remember in particular reading the article about the position of former élèves by Bertrand Joly, ‘L’École des Chartes et l’Affaire Dreyfus’, BEC 147 (1989) 611-671 (online, Persée).

It is not entirely by chance that the scientist René Girard (1923-2015) , one of the most famous former students of the ENC, became interested in the role and importance of mechanisms for blaming people. His theories about scapegoat mechanisms made him most interesting for anthropologists, but legal historians, too, have to be aware of such phenomena, and not only when dealing with criminal law. Roger Martin du Gard (1881-1958) became an author of famous novels, foremost the series Les Thibaut (1922-1940), which brought him in 1937 the Nobel Prize for literature.

The ENC does not have its own various series of source editions like its slightly older German counterpart, the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, but its professors and former students certainly produced numerous critical editions in the classic French series such as the Classiques de l’Histoire de France. Many theses defended at the ENC have as its core a source edition. Today the ENC offers four master degrees, including a degree for digital humanities, beside the original course for archiviste-paléographe. Its horizon goes beyond the Middle Ages. The MGH offer currently summer schools in the historical auxiliary sciences, but the institute does not have a school. A number of German historians did contributed editions for the MGH or were at some time a staff member. Both institutions have their own distinctive qualities and know an equally rich history with sometimes dramatic periods. Both deserve laurels as pioneers and models for contributing to historical research in Europe. For me 2021 would not be complete here without a commemoration of the ENC’s bicentennial!

What’s in a word? Two ways of legal inquiry in the medieval common law

Startscreen Mapping the Medieval Countryside

Sometimes the name of a website can be deceptive. When I encountered the website Inquisitions post mortem with the subtitle Mapping the Medieval Countryside. Properties, Places & People my first thought went to the coroners’ inquests into the causes of unnatural deaths, a very rich resource telling us much about society in late medieval England. However, soon it becomes clear inquisitions post mortem (IPM) are something else, inquiries into the property of deceased tenants of the crown. In this post I will look both at these inquiries and at the medieval coroner and the sources documenting his inquests, and I will look at some other project websites as well.

What’s in a name?

My interest in the medieval coroner stems from the research for my master thesis in medieval history focusing on late medieval Utrecht. I used a rich resource in the holdings of Het Utrechts Archief, the registers for the Vechtkeuren (finding aid 701, Stadsbestuur van Utrecht, 1122-1577, inv.no. 234) from 1477 to 1528, now all digitized, with sometimes quite long and detailed descriptions about incidents concerning wrongdoing, verbal abuse and fighting. Even digitized transcriptions of these records are now available (finding aid 1128, Verzameling fotokopieën en transcripties, inv.nos 3055-3060). They can offer you invaluable glimpses of much else around incidents. Likewise the inquests of the English coroners can show you in the description of accidents much about late medieval society, as in the study by Barbara Hanawalt, The ties that bound. Peasant families in medieval England (Oxford, etc., 1986) where coroners’ inquests are the only archival resource she used. She used inquests from London as one source among other records in her study Growing up in medieval London. The experience of childhood in history (Oxford, etc., 1993).

Doing English history can mean dealing with a wide variety of rolls, now kept at The National Archives (TNA). The general description at the website of the TNA of the coroners’ rolls and files for the JUST 2 record series reminds you the medieval coroner dealt also with matters such as deaths in prison, outlawries and felon’s confessions. One of his duties was to ascertain whether any object was involved in the death under scrutiny, because such objects were due to the crown as deodands. This record series contains 286 rolls for the period 1228-1426. Later rolls figure in other record series. You should note the use of both Latin and French. The earliest surviving rolls have been edited by Roy Frank Hunnisett, Bedfordshire coroners’ rolls (Streatley, Bedf., 1961) and used in his study The medieval coroner (Cambridge 1961). On my web page on the history of the common law you can find other editions by Hunnisett and also older calendars and editions of coroners’ rolls, a number of them available online. The TNA has a helpful concise guide How to search for coroners’ inquests indicating also other records series with inquests.

Logo Anglo-American Tradition

The coroners’ rolls are not available in digital form at the TNA’s website, but you can use photographs online at the portal Anglo-American Legal Tradition hosted by the O’Quinn Law Library of the University of Houston. On its startpage you will find at first a division of materials in several periods of English legal history. The AALT wiki helps you to navigate the digital materials, and it brings you for instance to lists of Anglo-Norman words in the digitized records. Citation Finder 1 helps you to find quickly the right items in eight record series organized by calendar years. A second Citation Finder gives for four record series, among them JUST 2, links to digitized single records. Due to their form you will find for each roll two image series, one for the recto side, the other for the verso (back). It is wise to consult the AALT’s PDF on navigation.

TNA, JUST 2/1, start verso side

The start of the verso side of the very first surviving coroners’roll – The National Archives, JUST 2/1, verso

It takes time to get adjusted to viewing the originals of these rolls, but adjusting to the handwriting might be another matter, as does for me refreshing my memory for the exact years of the reigns of English kings used by the TNA to indicate the time range of each roll. The AALT provides you on its index page with tutorials in English, German and French, three paleography exercises with Latin texts and three with English texts.

Among recent projects using coroners’ inquests is Everyday life and fatal hazard in sixteenth-cnetury England (University of Oxford). In particular the idea to present here every month a telling case helps to gain insight into cases of misadventure. The bibliography at this website is most useful. In 2014 two studies on medieval coroners appeared, by Rab Houston, The coroners of Northern Britain, c. 1300-1700 (London-New York 2014), and Sara M. Butler, Forensic medicine and death investigation in medieval England (London-New York 2014).

A different inquiry

The website Mapping the Medieval Countryside. Properties, Peoples and Places offers a compact startscreen with both search and browse functionality, a concise introduction, a news section and a blog section. Alas there is no additional information about the remarkable Boarstal Map from 1444, but it illustrates certainly the theme of places and properties. Mapping the Medieval Countryside is a project of the University of Winchester and King’s College London.

On the project website you can find not only a general introduction to the inquisitions post-mortem, but also a most useful series of articles headed Backgrounds on various aspects of the IPM. This type of inquest happened either with a special writ, or with the standard writ diem clausit extremum devised for inquisitions upon someone’s death. The escheator was the officer acting at a IPM, instructed by this standard writ or another. The written report of an IPM contained a number of standard elements, most often presented in a fixed order. With the inclusion of the time and place where the inquest was held, the names of jurors, the name of the escheator, information about the extent, value and location of lands, the date of death of the deceased, the name and age of the heir, and when necessary information about other royal rights involved, an IPM is a most valuable record. However, an escheator did not always note everything. Sometimes he was decidedly partial or he deliberatedly hid or altered information. On the website the place of the IPM within the process of inheriting is described, a fairly lengthy and complicated affair. A more detailed introduction to IPMs by Christine Carpenter merits your close attention. Her footnotes mention the main relevant scholarly publications.

Apart from the record of an IPM made for the Chancery a copy was also made for the ExchequerMapping the Medieval Countryside provides you with background information about both series of records, pointing also to the enduring importance of the early nineteenth-century Calendarium inquisitionum post mortem sive escaetarum (4 vol., [London], 1806-1828) for tracing IPMs. In some cases the document in the Exchequer series is the draft of the IPM. You will need to work with the tables of references as a concordance between old locations and modern designations. Some documents are missing, others may well be held as a part of other record series in the TNA or are kept elsewhere.

You might want to consult also the concise guide about IPMs on the TNA’s website. It mentions for example the existence of separate series of IPMs for a number of counties. This guide mentions also an article and two books for further guidance. The Wikipedia article on the IPM shows a global concordance between the reigns, calendars and relevant record series (C 132 to C 142 and E 149-150) without any indication of gaps and other record series. However, it does show clearly the uncalendared periods 1447-1485 and 1509-1660. The IPMs were held in Early Modern England as well. The Wikipedia entry scores with a nice number of references to historical literature about the IPM.

The article on IPM’s and historical research concisely shows the wide variety of subjects for which the IPMs contain information, for example family and inheritance, landholding and land use, demography and jurisdiction. In view of this rich material it is good to have here also a glossary of recurrent terms in these records. It reminded me of the glossary at the website of the project Civil Law, Common Law, Customary Law (University of St. Andrews).

Mapping the Medieval Countryside focuses on medieval inquisitions post mortem (IPM), held between the mid-thirteenth century and the early sixteenth century, and within these centuries on the period 1399 to 1447. In the IPM the holdings of deceased tenants to the crown were registered. The two different periods mentioned at the start page make you curious about this difference. Here the history of research into IPM’s plays a large role. Printed calendars exist for the periods 1236-1447 and 1485-1509. A page about these calendars explains the development of the editorial policies between 1888 and 2010. The earlier calendars focused on the inheritance. The extent of lands and valuations were omitted, as were the names of jurors and the escheator. Many elements in an IPM document are repetitive, and thus it is alluring to summarize the contents in view of the enormous mass of archival records to be processed. For Mapping the Medieval Countryside it was logical to start with the latest published calendars for the period 1422-1447, and to add in a second phase an enhanced version of the calendars dealing with the period 1399-1422. The modern calendars note for each IPM both the record in the Chancery series and the copy in the Exchequer series.

At the portal British History Online you can find digital versions for almost every relevant calendar of inquisitions post-mortem. Two calendars for IPMs concerning London, too, have been digitized. Mapping the Medieval Countryside offers more search facilities, and it has the great asset of some 48,000 names of jurors entered for the period 1399-1422.

An IPM - source: Mapping the Medieval Countryside

Mapping the Medieval Countryside provides us on the page about the documents with some images of IPMs, however, without any reference. I show the largest image here above. It proves to be quite a task to find some images elsewhere. In the virtual exhibition Shakespeare Documented of the Folger Shakespeare Library you can look at an IPM from 1599 mentioning the Globe theatre [TNA, C 142/257/68]. The Bodleian Libraries show in their digital collections the IPM concerning John Paston, dated around 1466 [MS Don c. 93]. I had almost overlooked the exercise with an IPM from 1489 [C 142/23/116] in the TNA’s Latin paleography tutorial. Surely a tour of digital collections of county record offices will bring you more results.

It is perhaps good to mention here explicitly we can use images for a number of record series at the portal Anglo-American Legal Tradition thanks to great efforts of volunteers who did their best to create a clear presentation of digital images. When you realize how much work goes into this website, you will not start complaining about the absence of images of IPMs at the AALT website, nor feeling miserable about missing some other record series. At British History Online you can find many digitized guides and calendars, but not calendars with coroners’ inquests, with as the main exception four volumes with Middlesex County Records. The English Medieval Legal Documents guide of the Gould School of Law, University of Southern California, helps you to find the titles of relevant works and bibliographies.

Visiting medieval London

Logo Medieval Londoners

With Shakespeare you think also of London, and because I mentioned London already here for the coroners it is only fitting to end in this town. A few days ago Fordham University launched the portal Medieval Londoners with a database to search for late medieval Londoners. This portal has also a very detailed resources section. In the subsection for written sources you can find a substantial commented list of legal records. On the page for resources concerning property the IPMs are mentioned. The virtual exhibition Medieval London created by students of Fordham Unirersity in 2015, 2017 and 2019 with exhibits about medieval objects and locations in London can be found at the portal under Pedagogy. Among the links at Medieval Londoners you can find the London Medieval Murder Map (Manuel Eisner, Violence Research Centre, Cambridge University) based on coroners’ rolls for nine years in the first half of the fourteenth century. The map brings you to some 140 murder cases.

Maybe you want to immerse yourself into the history of medieval London and Londoners with a recent book. The volume of essays Medieval Londoners, Elizabeth New and Christian Steer (eds.) (London 2019; hardcover, ePub and PDF) can form your starting point. If I had not already started writing about the medieval coroner and the inquisitions post mortem I could well have decided to devote a post to this very interesting portal concerning medieval London. Combining both resources for your research is certainly challenging, but at least I could tell you here something about a number of medieval legal records wtth very particular qualities.

A postscript

At the website Medieval Genealogy you can benefit from abstracts of coroners’ inquests in Northampshire created by Stephen Swailes and an overview of digitized editions, calendars and abstracts of inquisitions post mortem.

The Italian thing: A look at a new palaeography tutorial

Startscreen "Italian Palaeography

How can you embark on studying original manuscripts and archival records or the digital versions of these documents? The number of online tutorials for Italian palaeography is distinctly low in view of the sheer number of digitized resources concerning Italy’s medieval and Early Modern history. The new online tutorial Italian Paleography created by the The Newberry Library in Chicago and the University of Toronto Libraries is most welcome. What are its qualities? How does it stand the comparison with the earlier project of both partners for French Renaissance Paleography? Of course I will also look at the presence of elements directly touching upon legal history.

At the outset

Logo of The Newberry Library, Chicago

The activity of The Newberry Library in the field of medieval manuscripts and archival records is not a new phenomenon. A number of its departments and centers deal with resources from Europe. There is a concise page about palaeography. The Newberry Library can be proud of its fleet of introductory guides, too. The Digital Newberry brings you to numerous collections and virtual exhibits. The Newberry has created five crowdsourcing and transcribing projects. In their fine Introduction to manuscript studies (Ithaca, NY, 2007) Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham liberally used manuscripts and other documents from the Middle Ages and Renaissance held at The Newberry.

Logo Medici Archive Project

The University of Toronto Libraries can point among their digital collections to no lesser project than the Medici Archive Project. The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has digitized a fair number of its manuscripts, to mention just one example, and it has placed a number of its digitized collections in the Internet Archive. The presence in Toronto of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies is a gem for medievalists. I explored a number of scholarly institutions in a post about the international congress of medieval canon law held at Toronto in 2012.

The number of digital collections with archival records from Italy is every bit as high as you might suppose. I counted some thirty projects for Italy on my web page about digital archives. If you want to get an indication of the number of digitized manuscripts in Italy DMMap quickly shows you some thirty collections, excluding those digitized at the Vatican Library with currently well over 18,000 manuscripts. These high figures should make scholars in and outside the Italian peninsula happy, provided you are able to decipher these documents and manuscripts. In earlier posts here I looked for example at the Progetto Irnerio for medieval legal manuscripts in Bologna and at the book series edited by Giovanna Murano about autograph manuscripts of Italian authors. You can use the tag Italy of my blog to find more relevant posts.

One of the reasons there are only few online manuals for Italian palaeography is the presence at several Archivi di Stato and also at the Vatican of a scuola di archivistica, paleografia e diplomatica. Universities do offer courses in palaeography, too. I have found only three free accessible online resources for Italian palaeography, the Materiali didattici per la paleografia Latina created by Antonio Cartelli and Marco Palma (Università degli Studi di Cassino) who deal mainly with medieval manuscripts, and the Lezioni di paleografia of Renata di Simone (Archivio di Stato di Palermo) with an introduction to medieval paleography and book history (PDF), both of them in Italian. There is a tutorial in English for Early Modern and nineteenth-century Italian documents at BYU Script Tutorial. By mistake Spanish is used in the Italian version of this tutorial on the platform created by the Brigham Young University. The thirst for people in the Anglo-American hemisphere to be able to use an introduction in English is understandable. This is a real need, and the new tutorial does tackle this challenge.

The Italian thing

Much what can be said about the website for French Renaissance Paleography applies also to the new tutorial Italian Paleography launched on July 25, 2019. The section with manuscripts leads you to a hundred examples of handwritten books (80 items) and documents (20 items). You can filter them by genre, period, script type, reading difficulty, region and holding institution. This choice of examples seems to have been in favor of manuscripts. For the regions the general localisation “Italy” seems a bit vague. For all other aspects the choice seems quite balanced. 31 items touch the field of politics and government, twelve have been labelled “Law”.

Among the items at Italian Paleography concerning law is a register of criminals executed in Venice, written around 1775 (The Newberry, VAULT Case Ms 6A 34). Its resource type has been indicated as manuscript book, but surely this is not a manuscript in the codicological sense, but an archival document in book form, with bound leaves. The tutorial show only four of the 59 pages. With respect to the type of resource the descriptions have been made in accordance with the Library of Congress’ Thesaurus for Graphic Materials.

Supplication, 1469 - The Newberry, Wing MS folio ZW 1 .469 recto

Supplication, Milan 1469 – The Newberry, Wing MS folio ZW 1.469 recto (detail)

A document from 1469 is perhaps a better example to show here, a supplication to the lord of Milan to reverse a condemnation.

The address of the supplication, 1469 - image: The Newberry

The address of the supplication, 1469 – The Newberry, Wing MS folio ZW 1 .469 (detail of verso)

This document is of course shown in its entirety. The supplication has been written in a very fluent hand, but the address on the back and the note below it show a less polished handwriting. In fact the main text of the document was written by a writing master. For each item of the tutorial a link is provided to the catalog description, a transcription and a background essay. This is really helpful, and anyone learning to read these documents should learn also not to turn to the transcriptions too soon. I will come back to the detailed description of the script(s) in documents given in each background essay.

The second section of the website is a concise handbook on the development of scripts used in Italy and the rise of the vernacular language. Two much older items have been included among the examples to show the most important points of departure. At the core of this website is not just the study of books and documents from Italy, but also very much the study of books and documents written in the Italian language. The description of the writing hands for the examples is given in Italian. For each phase and script type the relevant examples are listed.

The next section, the appendix, offers you access to a number of digitized calligraphy manuals and historic maps. The resources section leaves little to desire. There is not only a handy overview of the transcriptions and background essays, but also a glossary of palaeographic terms, an overview of relevant dictionaries, a bibliographical section and a section on transcription standards and metadata standards. The sections on abbreviations and symbols, teaching materials and the history of the project do not yet contain information.

I have saved perhaps the best thing for the end. At the start page of Italian Paleography you will find a number of short introductions to palaeography as a subject, its history, some tips and tricks, and also two videos in the right hand menu. In particular the page New to palaeography helps you for quick orientation into Gothic, mercantesca, cancelleresca, humanistic and italic (cursive) script. After creating an account for this website you can make transcriptions at this website using T-PEN (Transcription for Palaeographical and Editorial Notation). Thus this online tutorial offers you also a way to familiarize yourself with this important integrated tool.

Some differences

Banner French Renaissance Paleography

When you compare Italian Paleography with its older sister French Renaissance Paleography it is understandable some sections have simply not yet been filled. The website for France has a very similar structure. A clear visual difference are the interactive map and the clickable tags for topics and time periods. Reference materials can be found under a separate heading, not as a part of the resources section. The main parts of the website are listed on the start page. The section “About French documents” is empty. The presence of its logo on the start page declares more openly the use of T-PEN. There is a page Get started which in my view helps you initially as good as the videos of Italian Paleography. These differences amount mainly to a judicious remix of elements.

Logo UTL

Both websites are hosted by the University of Toronto Libraries. Their logo deserves a place next to that of The Newberry at the top of both online tutorials. At the bottom other institutions are mentioned as well. A number of libraries and institutions in the United States have graciously provided materials for this website. It is fair to conclude after this quick tour that both tutorials fulfill their purpose eminently. The combination of attention to documents with the Italian vernacular and the use of Italian for a very particular part of the descriptions rightly stress also the need to master the Italian language to some degree if you want to study sources in Italian. This linguistic demand combines with the need to be able to read the various kinds of scripts, some of them really challenging, and makes it clear doing history is not just a matter of reading texts translated into your own language and reasoning about them. Thus material and very physical aspects can help teaching you to look beyond the content of a document to its actual form and context. You simply need training for a number of essential activities in doing historical research.

The Italian tutorial shows an agreement from 1466 with an artist about the decoration of a chapel in the Sant’Antonio basilica in Padua. Art historians might be tempted to contemplate the very interesting sketch of the decoration plan in this document, and to forget the legally binding agreement. Legal historians should be seduced to look not only at the agreement itself, but also at the matter at stake and the possibility of putting artistic purposes and procedures into a clear legal framework. It is my sincere wish to the team for Italian Paleography that many students and scholars may benefit from their work. Just like its counterpart for French palaeography the training it offers can greatly assist your research in Italian manuscripts and archival documents. It will save you time and the efforts to learn things only when you arrive in Italy or have found the digitized items you are looking for at your computer screen.

An update

In view of the small number of online tutorials for Italian palaeography it is sensible to mention here the Materiale didattico: Paleografia e diplomatica created by Bianca Fadda, Università di Cagliari, who presents images of several medieval scripts and documents.

Learning to read German legal responsa

Banner "rechtsprechung im Osteeraum

Modern technology has taken up the challenge of reading old scripts, the domain of palaeography. One of the best known tools, Transkribus, is currently used in a project on legal resources held at the university archives in Greifswald. The project Rechtsprechung im Ostseeraum. Digitization & Handwritten Text Recognition focuses on sources dealing with Germany’s legal history in the region on the borders of the Baltic Sea. The project aims at making accessible 102,000 pages of legal instructions of the Faculty of Law of the Universität Greifswald (Spruchakten der Greifswalder Juristenfakultät, 1580-1800), 130,000 pages of opinions of the judges at the Wismar Tribunal (Relationen der Assessoren am Wismarer Tribunal, 1746-1845) as well as 25,000 pages of opinions of the judges of the Wismar Council Court (Relationen des Wismarer Ratsgericht) (1701-1879). Users will get access to images of these sources and they will be able to perform text searches in this corpus. The Transkribus tool is being trained to recognize Early Modern handwriting of very different scribes. Does it succeed indeed in creating reliable transcriptions? What efforts are necessary to make such sources ready for computerized approaches?

Scribal varieties and the use of computers


At various European universities and archives teams use the Transkribus tool of the READ (Recognition and Enrichment of Archival Documents) project and even a special portable scanning tent for projects with many thousand pages in Early Modern or medieval scripts. Combined with a very active presence on Twitter it can sometimes almost seem Transkribus is virtually the only proven tool in this field. Until now the number of projects with the Transkribus tool for documents specifically dealing with legal history is small. The recent announcement of the project at Greifswald at the Transkribus blog offers an opportunity to see the tool at last at work for legal historians.

A "Spruckakte" from 1586

A “Spruchakte” from 1586, Universitätsarchiv Greifswald – image: Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

At the bilingual project website in Greifswald it becomes quickly clear in the sources overview that you can find currently only images of four registers of Spruchakten from Greifswald shown at the Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The initial choice for only four registers was made as a “training set” with a view to the Transkribus tool which has to digest letter forms and writing patterns in order to become a functional reading tool. The registers contain documents from 1586, 1603, 1607 and 1643. The Universitätsarchiv Greifswald has digitized several series, among them matriculation registers and charters, but the Spruchakten are not mentioned in this overview. On the other hand the university archive and library are currently present with the largest collections in the Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The other institutional partners in this project are the Universitätsbibliothek Greifswald, the Stadtarchiv Wismar and the Landesarchiv Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Schwerin. The Stadtarchiv Wismar has a web page about the creation of finding aids for the records of the Wismarer Tribunal in its holdings and also those in other archives, with some references to relevant literature.

One of the reasons to use digital tools for studying these legal materials is their nature. The series of legal instructions and verdicts are organized in chronological order and only indexed for the names of claimants and defendants. The sheer working power in dealing with a massive set of (textual) data can make a huge difference for starting at all with a project concerning documents linked with a particular legal court in some or all of its dimensions.

Using the Transkribus tool

For using the Transkribus tool you need to create a free account. You need to download the tool. There is a succinct user guide (PDF) and an extensive online guide in the Wiki format. The tool is the core of a set of accompanying websites and cloud services. OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and HTR (Handwritten Text Recognition) are both possible. You will need to contact the team at the Universität Innsbruck for starting the “training” of the tool, the process of recognizing and correctly deciphering various forms of writing. Among the most interesting results with this tool is the high percentage of correctly resolved texts in Early Modern Dutch archival records. The “model” succeeded not only in reading just one kind of script, but dealt equally successful with several kinds of handwriting. Depending on the number of words fed into the machine the character error rate (CER) can reach very low levels. A recent post at Rechtsprechung im Ostseeraum discusses the difference between word error rate and CER.

On Tuesday October 29, 2019 Annemiek Romein (Universiteit Gent) and Jeroen Vandommele gave a webinar at the Dutch Royal Library about using Transkribus. Provided you can follow Dutch, viewing this webinar gives you a very useful introduction to the practical use of this transcription tool, albeit with a focus on optical character recognition for dealing with printed texts, in particular collections of ordinances and the resolutions of the Staten-Generaal. I was in particular impressed by the way you can zoom in on and select text blocks. Aspects such as the costs of using Transkribus and surely the most asked question, its final reading speed, currently one page within a minute, come also into view.

As for now the project in Greifswald brings only a set of legal instructions by the law faculty of Greifswald. These gain in importance when sets from the other two resources, the opinions of the Wismar Ratsgericht and the Tribunal are added. It will be most interesting to see whether the opinions of the law professors deal with cases heard at one of the two legal courts. Combining them with the verdicts themselves is a logical sequel. I had hoped to report here more about the ins and outs of this project, but on the other hand it is a realistic example of work in progress, not a finalized and fully dressed product.

Despite carefully looking at the project website I could not readily detect the entrance to transcribed records, but I did reach a password protected page. You must forgive me my predilection for websites with site maps and clear navigation! However, the project team gives a very good description of the various stages of preparations needed for the workflow of their project. The team is right in approaching these stages as separate but intertwined projects which all need due attention. In the blog posts at the project website a lot of subjects have been touched upon, and this steadily stream will hopefully continue in coming years. It is certainly useful to get acquainted with this and other tools, to look at its procedures and terminology in order to carefully consider the chances and risks of using such tools.

The second Transkribus logo

It seems wise to look in more detail at the Transkribus website and its subdomains. On the main website the overview of pages for the Transkribus tool is essential. The transcription tool itself is hosted at a subdomain. Perhaps surprisingly there is also a page about the palaeography module offered by Transkribus at another subdomain, Transkribus LEARN. Here you can find hundreds of script examples. It is understandable Transkribus focuses at its transcription tool, but this palaeographical resource deserves to be known by anyone wanting to learn reading old scripts. This way of learning by doing it yourself has to be distinguished from the “learning” of the “model”, the process by which the transcription tool digests information about scripts from a set of documents for automatic deciphering. As an extra you might want to visit Famous Hands, a site with documents showing the handwriting of famous European persons. It is a bit amusing to see how Transkribus LEARN and Famous Hands can seem almost hidden from direct view, but Transkribus LEARN is duly listed at the services page. Here, too, a sitemap would be helpful.

The datasets of Transkribus have been put at the Zenodo platform with the title ScriptNet – READ. The fleet of deliverables, the newspeak term for finished products from a project, are listed at a separate page of the main website. Components such as the transcription tool, the portable ScanTent which works with Transkribus’ own DocScan app, the link to Famous hands, the GitHub repository of Transkribus and also the several components of the tools developed by various European teams can be found at this page. The so-called Transkribus KWS interface for keyword spotting brings you to a project for Finnish court records from 1810 to 1870 held at the Kansallisarkisto, the National Archives of Finland (interface Finnish and English), yet another subject touching upon legal history.

At the end of this brief presentation of the Transkribus tool and its current uses for legal history it is fair to mention at least concisely some other available tools, following no particular order. Transcripto is a tool with a German and English interface created at the Universität Trier. Looking at Scripto I thought for some time it might also be a transciption tool like Transkribus, but it is a transcription interface created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media for crowdsourcing projects which can be integrated with several CMS systems. The Università Roma Tre works on the project In Codice Ratio with the aim of automatic text recognition and transcription, in particular for the holdings of the Vatican archives. The French Himanis project has at its core a tool for text recognition used for indexing the text of 68,000 charters and documents in the Trésor des chartes of the Archives nationales in Paris.

TranScriptorium was the earlier incarnation of the READ project. Among the five datasets at the old project website are transcriptions of verdicts given by the German Reichsgericht between 1900 and 1914, a project led by Jan Thiessen (Universität Tübingen). This set of documents in the Kurrent script has been transferred to the document sets of Transkribus; you can access it after free registration. Christian Reul (Würzburg) has created OCR4ALL, a tool for dealing with OCR scanning of historical printed editions. It turns out it is fairly easy to find transcription platforms with various levels of image and transcription integration. In some cases there are even distinct layers for guiding and moderating crowdsourcing projects, but finding a tool for electronic recognition and transcription of historical handwriting and old printed works remains a challenge which certainly deserves a separate contribution.

A postscript

Within a few days Elisabeth Heigl of the project team at Greifswald kindly sent a comment with the good news of a very useful overview in English for searching and browsing the documents in the Digitale Bibliothek Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. With the search function you will see the result of the HTR done by Transkribus.

For all those curious about Transkribus and wanting to start using you might have a look for example at these blog posts elsewhere, ‘Digitize a Collection of Letters using Transkribus and XSLT‘ at the blog How to of the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities, ‘How to historical text recognition: A Transkribus Quickstart Guide‘ at LaTex Ninja’ing and the Digital Humanities, and Issue 13: OCR (July 2019) of Europeana Tech.